I think the impetus behind President Obama’s decision to make an address on health care to a joint session of Congress next week is simple: the White House wants to play to the President’s strength. His speech at the 2004 Democratic convention vaulted him to national prominence, and his speech on race during last year’s presidential campaign was acclaimed by many and compared by some, favorably, to the Gettysburg Address and other famous political addresses. I think the President and his advisers believe that he is a terrific public speaker, and that the best way to get the health care reform debate back on track — after a month of contentious town hall meetings, rancorous debate, and falling poll numbers — is to get the President behind a podium in front of an audience, and hope that lightning strikes yet again.
And, of course, lightning may strike — or the President and his speech may be unable to meet extraordinary expectations about solving crucial political differences that simply can’t be papered over with memorable phrases or poignant pauses. After all, President Obama has not been silent during the ongoing health care reform debate. To the contrary, he has spoken repeatedly — to the AMA, at town hall meetings, on his weekly radio addresses, and in every other imaginable venue — about the need for health care reform. So far, his public speaking prowess has not made a difference.
I think this is because health care reform is one of those issues where the devil is truly in the details. Soaring rhetoric about the need to unshackle our economy from the burdens of health care spending, or to provide health care to every American, regardless of their economic situation, may ring hollow in the face of voter concerns about whether reform efforts will cause them to lose control over their own health care decisions and those of their family members. The President truly will face a daunting task when he settles behind the speaker’s platform of the House of Representatives next week.